Made in America: Thule
They are hard to miss. Every few cars that go by have one on and they all say Thule Sweden, but a lot of what you are actually seeing was made right here in the United States. While some pieces still come from overseas the great majority come from the United States. Thule Vehicle Solutions North America is located in Seymour, Connecticut. Not only is this their North American headquarters but this is also where a lot of their products are made for consumers in the United States.
Not too long after the Thule company came to America was it evident that they were going to need to be different from their European counterparts. At the time in Europe Thule products could be found in the automotive section of stores along with antifreeze. Here in America, it wasn’t the automotive folks that took to Thule but instead the sporting-goods crowd. The first group here in America that really took to Thule racks were windsurfers. Soon companies such as Eastern Mountain Sports started to take Thule in. The people at Thule saw that products that were being used in Europe were not received quite as well in the United States. It was decided that Thule North America needed their own design, engineering, and input right here in the United States. They were going to need to be able to make and control some of their own things over on this side of The Pond.
Once inside you have to get past the sales and marketing offices before you can move on to where the engineers are working at designing and revamping. They have to think about how the racks fit for the cars and for the sporting-goods products. Inside the cubicles, you can find anything from random bicycle wheels to skis to prototypes of new carriers. Along the walls are plaques for some of the many patents that Thule has. I made my visit to Thule near the end of the day. This meant that many of the engineers had already gone home. One of the engineers that did happen to be there was Fred, the brains behind the J style kayak carriers known at Thule as the Hull-a-Port.
We had a brief chat with Fred before moving downstairs to the Quality Test Center. Here we got to check out some of the many devices that Thule uses to test their products. There is a machine that is taller than myself that the guys referred to as a giant freezer and oven. Products can be put in there and the temperature cranked up or dropped down. They also had a large platform where racks could be mounted on and tested for vibrations. My favorite was the salt spray machine. It reminded me a bit of a very large washing machine. There was little window on it but all you could see was water splashing up against it. Not just any water but corrosive saltwater that could be found near the beach or along the road on a snowy day.
Back upstairs, we donned safety specs and got to check out the robotic welders. Solar collectors covering the roof are responsible for powering the robotic welders. Today the Lazy Susans were set up for hitch mounted bike carriers. On one side of an enclosure an operator was mounting steel pieces in place. On the other side the robotic welder was welding the steel together. Once welded these pieces were being packed up to be shipped to a neighboring state to be powder coated in Thule black. From here we moved on to receiving. This is where the powder coated pieces come back along with the plastic pieces that are made in Massachusetts. Once checked in these pieces would move to a large storage area before assembly. Before moving onto assembly, we also checked out the shipping area. Here there was a multitude of bike racks and water sports carriers getting ready to be sent out. Some of these were going right to consumers while others were getting ready to go to the shipping center in Colorado.
Could you imagine going on the Autobahn with a trunk mounted car rack? I don’t think so. Neither could the folks at Thule Europe. Here in North America our speed limits are a little bit slower than the advised 81 mi./h on the Autobahn. So Thule North America worked on convincing the folks back in Europe that we should be making trunk mounted racks here in the United States. On my visit, the second shift workers were putting together some trunk mounted racks. Across the aisle, there were workers bending steel into the iconic J shape for the water sports carriers. Across the floor the ski carrier section was dead silent. Since most of their products are made here in America, Thule can respond to the instant feedback of consumers. In the case of this winter there wasn’t much snow so there wasn’t much need for ski carriers. Instead, the factory in Seymour was working on more bike and water sport carriers. Companies that have their racks made in foreign countries don’t have the same luxury. Now they are probably sitting on a ton of ski carriers with little demand to sell.
Working for a company that is so seeded in the outdoors has its perks. This was quite evident by the indoor bike parking lot. Employee bikes sat in there waiting for noon the next day. At that time a stream of bikes can be seen exiting the Thule building heading out for rides. They have 5 miles of trail on the property that can be used for mountain biking, cyclo-cross, or even running. If you’re not feeling up for a ride you could instead take part in a yoga class at lunchtime. Or wait until the end of the day and do some Zumba, which was just starting while I was on my tour.
Being close to Thule’s headquarters has also been great for Eastern Mountain Sports. Employees from the stores get to go down and receive Rack Master training. They learn all about the company and how to properly fit racks. They learn to fit different types of racks onto different cars and also how to put the various accessories and boxes on the racks. They then bring this knowledge back to the store and will install your new Thule rack for you for free. If you have any questions about Thule or their products head to your local EMS and pick the brains of a Rack Master. Check out this great video about our Rack Masters.
It doesn’t matter how you spin it, Thule makes some great products and they make them right here in America.
I would like to thank Peter Pell my fabulous tour guide and a fantastic brand ambassador.